Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By William Ford
Tuesday, January 23, 2018, 3:50 PM

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team questioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions for several hours last week, the New York Times reports. Sessions appears to be the first member of President Trump’s cabinet with whom members of Mueller’s team have spoken. The attorney general is a key witness for Mueller regarding two important issues: the Trump campaign’s potential ties to the Russians—Sessions sat down with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time, Sergey Kislyak, twice during the presidential campaign—and the question of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct the Russia inquiry when he fired then-FBI Director James Comey. In the same story, the Times also reports that Mueller interviewed Comey last year.

FBI Director Christopher Wray threatened to resign rather than bow to pressure from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Axios reports. After Wray’s threat, White House counsel Donald McGahn cautioned Sessions against further pressuring the director, arguing that McCabe—who is reportedly planning to retire this year—was not worth the risk of losing Wray. Yesterday’s pressure to remove McCabe follows previous attacks from Trump and other Republicans aimed at the deputy director and encouragement of Wray to demote or reassign the senior aides of his predecessor, James Comey.

Despite a lull in the production of its propaganda following the fall of Raqqa in October, the Islamic State has begun a “regrouping media operation,” the Washington Post reports. Last week, the group’s official Amaq News Agency released its first English-language communique since September, and pro-Islamic State social media accounts have witnessed a drastic increase in traffic during the first weeks of 2018. Additionally, ISIS supporters, bloggers, and volunteers maintain a strong online presence that enables the organization’s ideas to spread and continues to foil attempts by the coalition against ISIS and private companies to shut down jihadist accounts. These amateur individuals have released a steady stream of incitements which aim to inspire lone-wolf attacks and provide the attackers with the precise details necessary to carry their missions out.

The Trump administration has expanded the U.S. military’s use of drones and claimed to loosen the rules of engagement, but without specifying how, the Guardian reports. Civilian casualties have increased significantly because of this coupling of expansion and looser rules. The Trump administration undertook 50 percent more coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in 2017 than were undertaken in 2016, and civilian casualties increased by 215 percent. In Afghanistan, the number of civilian deaths almost doubled in 2017 compared with 2016. In a special investigation, the Guardian documented a sharp rise in civilian casualties in Somalia, as well.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary James Mattis pushed for deeper security ties with Indonesia and Vietnam as part of a larger drive to strengthen Southeast Asian countries against Chinese intimidation in the South China Sea, the Wall Street Journal reports. Mattis and the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, view China’s actions in the region, including its seizure of outlying islands in the South China Sea to which other Asian nations lay claim, as predatory and aggressive. In the new National Defense Strategy released last week, the Defense Department stated that U.S. defense objectives include “defending allies from military aggression and bolstering partners against coercion.” Mattis’s trips to Indonesia and Vietnam are an outgrowth of that objective.

ICYMI: Yesterday on Lawfare

Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes praised FBI Director Christopher Wray for defending the Bureau’s institutional integrity in the face of pressure from President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

In Water Wars, Timothy Saviola and Nathan Swire collated the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas.

Megan Reiss analyzed the results of Lawfare’s survey investigating Americans’ opinions on sanctions, finding that support for sanctions begins to falter when the measures could impact the U.S. economy.

Harry Litman argued that President Trump will not sit for an interview with the special counsel anytime soon.

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